Guest Contributor: Brian OConnell on Bar Managing at iOWest

You know BRIAN O’CONNELL from his work with groups like BillyHawk, BillyMiles, EXTRA-STRENGTH and Dr. God, but as the bar manager for iOWest, the folks there also know him as the man who keeps the love going long after the stages of Hollywood Blvd have gone dark…

In this exclusive feature for PhillyImprov, Brian shares with us his insight into life managing a bar occupied by your comedy family.

Bar Managing a Comedy Club
by Brian O’Connell

The absolute best part about bar managing an improv theater is the people. It can sometimes also be the most difficult.

Unlike any other bar I’ve managed (and I’ve been working in bars since before I could legally drink. What? I’m Irish. This is surprising?), the clientele at iOWest is 85% “regulars”. Most of our patrons are fellow performers, students, alumni, improv junkies or some combination thereof. The crowd is our best asset; our best form of advertising.

No other bar has the advantage I have in that the overwhelming majority of patrons are the funniest, nicest people you have ever met; who have literally been trained to take care of the person talking directly across from them. Our people have been trained to listen, actively be interested in what you are saying and then furthering the conversation down a path that is not only revealing but also rewarding to the person who brought up the subject in the first place.

No other bar has the advantage that I have in that the “regulars” have a vested interest in the bar doing well. Firstly, they need the place to do well. They want you to come back because they have shows they want you to see because they are proud of those shows and have put a lot of effort into them. Our crowd wants the new visitor to tell their friends what a great time they had and suggest they do the same. Secondly, our crowd wants the new visitor to become
a repeat visitor simply because our crowd is part of a great community and we want to share.

Have you ever read a great book or seen a terrific film and gush about it to someone who hasn’t seen it yet? Our crowd treats this bar like a clubhouse; a playground where everyone can get together and actually enjoy each other’s company. We KNOW how awesome the place is and want to share that with someone who is new to the scene.

No other bar has the advantage that I have in that the bar patrons consider themselves a community; a “family” complete with crazy uncles, a doting mother and a kooky patriarch who we all miss and reminisce about fondly (even those of us who never met him). The vibe in the room is very palatable.

Our crowd is very protective of the “clubhouse” and wants to keep the good times rollin’. New visitors may not pick up on it initially but I can usually tell as I overhear them exit the doors for the night: They are amazed at how nice everyone was to them. How they didn’t see one fight break out. How no one tried to steal their purse or their coat.

It makes my job enormously easier if the entire crowd has my back. Anytime I’ve had to ask anyone to leave, it’s been relatively smooth because I physically have 30 people standing behind me giving the offender the same look. There really isn’t any room for douchebags or assholes at an improv bar because disagreement makes for bad comedy bits and “this ain’t that kind of scene, dude.”

I’m reminded of this frequently when I travel to other bars in town. I see various acts of rudeness going unchecked. I see rampant egos ruining other people’s evenings simply to serve their own selfish needs for what they consider “partying”. I see people over-served and wandering aimlessly because their “friends” abandoned them. I see guys fly off the handle in situations where a simple “excuse me” would have sufficed. It always makes me think, “That would never happen at iO. Someone would take care of that person. Cooler heads would have prevailed.” It helps that we all speak the same language, though.

QUICK ASIDE: Kim Mulligan asked me the other night whether or not I was able to “turn it off” when I’m at other bars. Honestly, I can’t. I’ve been doing this way too long. I can walk into any bar, anywhere, and within five minutes tell you who has been over-served, who is underage and HOW they got in, whether or not the bouncer is on the take, which bartender is drunk, if the owner’s are on drugs (and yeah, I can tell who the owners are usually), and so on and so forth. I can see a fight 10 minutes before it happens. Studying improv and learning how to read people’s body language has only heightened that skill. It used to drive me crazy but now I just remind myself that I don’t work there and Charna signs my checks, not these people. I usually just turn to my buddy and tell him to stand with me in a different part of the room. When they ask why, I tell them, “Because that guy who hasn’t touched the drink in his hand since we got here can’t take his eyes off of that girl. And the guy twice his size standing to her immediate left has….noticed. This isn’t going to be a very safe place to be in about, oh say, 3 minutes.” But I digress.

And about that shared language I mentioned earlier. Improvisers speak in a different rhythm. There is a give and take there and any new person picks up on it. The bits fly back and forth; the shared jokes told in quick character voices. Any conversation a lay person has with an improviser is inevitably politely interrupted by another improviser who wants to say hello and then is immediately followed by an introduction and greeting with the new person. That sort of warmth is extremely inviting to a new visitor. They want to be in on the joke. They want every person in the bar to be happy to see them just like it seems to be for the improviser they are talking with at that moment. It just LOOKS fun. And it is.

When I meet a lay person who is the boyfriend/girlfriend of an improviser, I inexorably make the joke, “So when are you starting classes?” You simply can’t be around improvisers talking very long without wanting to be part of the conversation.

In most bars, we just want your money. In an improv bar, we add you to the conversation. You’ll buy drinks simply because you don’t want to leave.

It’s also why everyone who works at an improv bar also performs there. I can’t imagine how a lay bartender could function at an improv bar. He wouldn’t know the language. He wouldn’t know the history. He wouldn’t understand that a Level 2 student is ordering in that old prospector voice not to be a dick but because he’s trying to be funny; to impress you. The student is trying to belong; to join the conversation. He wouldn’t know Miles Stroth or Bob Dassie from a hole in the ground and that would be a problem.

Can you imagine how difficult my job would be if I had to stop every 5 minutes and explain, “No, dude, that guy just raised his voice because he’s doing a bit. He’s not starting a fight; he’s doing his “Mr. Energy” character from The Friday 40. And by the way, please don’t make TJ Jagodowski wait 5 minutes for a beer as he is an improv legend and has probably earned a little extra prompt service for all he’s done for the art form. That’s embarrassing. What’s that you say? (Sigh.) A ‘bit’ is when….”

I shudder to think.

Which leads me to the dark side of having your crowd know each other rather than strangers at a club who may never see each other again: Things can get…..complicated.

When you have a lot of sensitive, artistic types in the same room with healthy egos whose art is so closely tied into their personality and their self-value, you need a bar manager who can be a calming influence. Yeah, we don’t have any fist fights at iO but we do have people who have long histories with each other and sometimes it’s not always the best histories.

Oh, and I hear everything. I know more than I should know and a very important part of my job is being discreet. I sometimes see people not at their very best (which happens at EVERY bar) but at an improv bar, that person is part of the family. I need to contain that situation because I don’t want them to be embarrassed. I need to let them know I don’t want to ever see that again AND I need to keep my fucking trap shut about it.

In this job, I spend a lot of time patiently listening to a particular view and attempting to be objective. I try to find mutually beneficial solutions. I try to encourage people to work with me. Hey man, I want a lot of people at your show as well. Let’s try and work out some drink specials. I spend a good part of my time reminding interns, who are our lifeblood, that although they are not getting paid, they are still getting something of value (free classes) so they should really try to treat it as, you know, a “real” job.

I also spend a lot of my time encouraging those who go that extra distance and do something because it needed to be done and not because they were asked to do it. I want those interns and staff members to know that I saw it and appreciated it. That they aren’t faceless; someone is watching and recognizes effort when it is given.

And I always wasn’t very good at it at first. I was used to regular bars where I had to exert a little more authority and use a different sort of language; “bar” rhythms and not “improv” rhythms. I was reminded by one of my servers not too long ago that one of my first requests for her to do something the way I wanted it done began with the line, “Now, I know you’re not retarded but,…”

Woof. Yeah, not good, I admit. But I was used to working with restaurant/bar “lifers”; my godmother, my Aunt Kathy, was the head server at Coletti’s in Chicago for thirty years. She would have smirked and gone right on with it. At the end of the night we would have been friends again. That’s just how the business works.

One of the main reasons I took the job at iOWest (besides the fact that I consider it my home; it’s members, my family) is because the staff was already in place. I didn’t have to clean house and through trial and error find a staff I was happy with a year later.

I have a great staff of people who work with me instead of for me. I don’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I earn their respect that way and they go the extra mile for me because of it. Not that I haven’t had to put the hammer down here and there but now, I’m just placing the hammer on the table. Sometimes that’s enough. Also, if they don’t do it for me, I’ll get fired and then they might have to work for a bigger asshole than me!

And honestly, no one who works here doesn’t want to work here; easily, it’s the best bar gig in town. Great friendly, funny crowd who tip well (because you’re going to see them next week) and only the occasional random jerk who thought this was the club next door and leaves 5 minutes later.

Everything about running a bar at an improv theater comes down to its people: those who populate the bar and those who run it. Unlike any other bar I’ve ever worked in, everyone has a vested interest in the place doing well. We all want this place to keep its doors open so that we can keep coming back.

Not only because there is no other place like it but because we need it.

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4 Responses to Guest Contributor: Brian OConnell on Bar Managing at iOWest

  1. BOC says:

    This was enormously gratifying to write. Thanks for the opportunity guys.

  2. hughster1 says:

    It was great to read, Brian – thanks for taking the time to write it.

  3. web site says:

    Terrific post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject?
    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Bless you!

  4. Hi there, of course this piece of writing is in fact good and I have learned lot of things from it concerning
    blogging. thanks.

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